on being gracious and owning your shit

“Own your shit.”

I say that a lot. Usually not in my workplace, but in my professional community.

Every now and then someone will ask me to define it. Catchphrases need that from time to time.  Life has presented me with some good examples recently, and so I’ll use them.

Real Life Version:

Scenario A: You’re organizing a professional development event. You solicit speakers. You accept the speakers. You tell the speakers only a few days before the presentation what the tech setup will be, and it’s non-standard. When the speakers express concern, you apologize for failing to communicate, lacing the email with explanations of how expensive technology is at conferences.

Scenario B: You are a self-proclaimed leader in your field, and are marketing yourself as a professional speaker on new media topics. You post slides to your presentations on a social networking site. Another professional comments on the ill-advisability of one of your slides. Rather than respond, you delete the comment, and then several hours later delete the slide, then scold the commenter for calling you out on it.

Owning Your Shit Version:

Scenario A: You apologize for failing to communicate. Full stop. If applicable, you explain your reasons, but as reasons, not excuses.

Scenario B: You respond to the comment, explaining your position one way or the other, and acting from there, either by agreeing with the criticism and removing the slide, or by sticking by it.

Owning your shit means taking responsibility for your actions, acknowledging their impact on others, and  moving forward without trying to cover your ass.  The fact that the people in each of those scenarios can easily identify themselves will probably mean that this post makes me some enemies, or at least gets me branded a bully or something of that sort. But I think that integrity, civility, and professionalism matter, so I’m not going to hide from true things done by real people.

And I’m not innocent or perfect, either.  Owning your shit, in my world, means that I once sent an email to my direct supervisor apologizing for something I wrote here, revised the post in question, and apologized in person to the colleague I had offended with ill-advised writing.  Without making excuses, because I could see where I was wrong. Did I want to cover my ass, make myself look better? Of course. Did I have reasons for why I wrote what I did? Of course. But they weren’t relevant. I was at fault, and I was as gracious as I knew how to be when I apologized for it, because that was the right thing to do. Owning your shit also means that I was told recently that some librarians find it hard to share my writing with some of their colleagues because those librarians are offended by my use of explicit language. In return I said that I was sorry to hear that, but given my very intentional writing and speaking style, I was then probably not the best person for those people to read. Again, no excuses, but as much grace as I could muster, because I didn’t think I was wrong.

There’s power in acknowledging your mistakes, accepting that you were at fault, and being frank about it. There’s also power in taking a stand because you believe in something.  People respect courage. People do not respect weasels.


  1. Good example of presence. Own up to it. Take responsibility for your actions. Especially when it’s not one-on-one, but as a leader you do this with your team or entire organization. Then again, the words you use, your gestures, your tone – can all turn a negative into a positive.


  2. Well said. I’ve been on both sides of this situation and I’m always immensely grateful to people who, when they can’t maybe fix the problem, at least can OWN it and try to handle it without passing the buck to someone [vendors, hall rental places, budgets] who can’t be contacted.

    At the same time, I’ve made mistakes, apologized, and (hopefully) handled things for other people where I went astray or was just not communicating the way I wanted to communicate.

    In my online community we talk a lot about “setting expectations accurately” You’re not going to get an Ask MetaFilter (or a librarian.net) without swearing, but you will get one without racial slurs and without personal attacks. The more people can understand the expectations, the more that they can make their own decisions about whether or how much to engage.

    There’s also the added part where if you truly have to offer a speaker a non-standard setup, or if your sldies really offended people, you not only own it but ar gracious about whatever the resulting fallout is and try to “make it right” with people. Grace, as you say. Very good points here.


  3. Good advice for those of us just starting out in our professional careers. I hope I have the guts to own my shit when I’m sure I’ll need to one day 🙂


  4. Wow. That’s excellent advice, if a little hard to follow sometimes. Truly, though – I respect those who own their own sh*t and aspire to living that way myself. Thanks for the reminder!

    “setting expectations accurately” – that’s another brilliant piece of wisdom, thanks jessamyn!


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